Someone I Love Has Breast Cancer (Part 1)
“I’m terribly sorry for this, but I have to let you know that my mum is turning down the opportunity to have a chat with Malaysia Tatler about my breast cancer. I’m afraid she’s still traumatised by the whole experience."
Priya, a breast cancer survivor, told me that after I had approached her two weeks prior to receiving this text message. Our team had touched based with the National Cancer Society Malaysia, the Breast Cancer Welfare Association and Beacon International Specialist Centre, and their teams had kindly assisted us in reaching out to various survivors.
Unfortunately, while the survivors were kind enough to reciprocate the contact, their friends and families were not keen on telling us their story. Those who had been acting as caretakers of the sufferers got the brunt of it all, more often than not, so it would explain their reluctance to recall the trauma. “My mum still can’t get over it. She has trouble looking at my scars until today,” Priya explained further. Some parents forbid their children from talking about their breast cancer, preferring to treat it like it never happened. Understandable.
Fortunately, we had managed to get two people and a specialist to talk about their experiences being part of the whole ordeal, watching on and supporting as their loved ones ploughed through the plague that is breast cancer. This month, and for always, we strive to appreciate not only those who have survived or are fighting breast cancer, but those who have been with them every step of the way – as warrior themselves, not as an after-thought.
How did you feel when you first found out that Hiba had breast cancer?
“My first reaction was of disbelief. I couldn’t believe that she of all people would be diagnosed with breast cancer, and at such a young age. As far as I knew, she had always been quite a healthy young lady. She took care of herself and ate well – she also did not have any unhealthy vices. The first thing that I thought to ask her was if she’s gotten a second – or even a third – opinion. I just couldn’t believe it. While on the phone, I was the one who broke down and cried, and she was the one who said it was going to be alright.”
What was the process of accepting it like?
“I was in disbelief for quite some time, but I was determined to support her through as much as I can. And so, by watching her go through her treatments and dealing with the after-effects, I slowly accepted that it was real. It was happening. It was hard not to feel anger towards the circumstances, but seeing her smile and be her ever-jolly self through it all made it somewhat easier to just accept it as it was. She was always aware and up-to-speed on her condition, and she was proactive with her body. She wanted to see everything through. Her positive attitude was infectious, and I found myself shifting from questioning “Why?!” to thinking “What can I do to help?”, and it became easy to just fall into the supporting role. Of course, it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies, so when she had her ‘down’ days I did what I could to be present with her – emotionally and physically.”
What was the most grueling moment or memory of this entire experience?
“I’m not very good with blood and seeing people in pain – the hardest bit for me was first seeing her chemo-port, and then seeing her wounds after surgery… I just couldn’t see my beautiful best friend in pain and soldiering through it all on her own. I wished I could take some of the pain away.”
Where did you channel your stress to?
“Physical activity. It has always been my outlet, and I didn’t see any reason to change that. It’s important to also care for ourselves when we’re taking on the caretaker role. We’re no good to others if we’re no good to ourselves. Emotionally, I would talk to the other friends we call Care Bears – one of us is a doctor, thus we get our medical information from her. It’s good to have this network of support – we ended up supporting each other, with Hiba at its core.”
"I found myself shifting from questioning “Why?!” to thinking “What can I do to help?”, and it became easy to just fall into the supporting role. Of course, it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies, so when she had her ‘down’ days I did what I could to be present with her – emotionally and physically.”
How did you maintain a strong exterior to keep her strong too?
“I’m a very soft-hearted person and after some time, I decided not to work very hard to keep a ‘strong’ facade – she would’ve seen right through it and it would have just made matters worse. Instead, to support her, I encouraged her to talk about what was happening and I also took an interest in everything that was happening in and around her life (not just the cancer, but also relationship, home life, etc.). I think that’s a much better way to keep the person we’re caring for going: by being with them in the moment. That way, they won’t feel as if they’re going through it alone. And the truth is, Hiba wasn’t going through it alone. She had me and all of us with her through it all.”
I think that’s a much better way to keep the person we’re caring for going: by being with them in the moment. That way, they won’t feel as if they’re going through it alone.
What changes did you make to your lifestyle?
“I was working 9 to 5, and the biggest change I made in my life at the time was to stay over at the hospital with her on days she needed to be admitted for treatment. We (the Care Bears) thought of it as sleepovers – she had friends over in the ward most of the times she was admitted, and we played some games when she could manage it. Other times we just kept her company. After that, the night’s volunteer ‘vigil’ will stay in the hospital with her through the night. Nowadays, we’re pickier with our surroundings whenever we go out; we try to go to places with healthier food choices and keep away from smokers as much as we could.”
Did you ever feel yourself changing in this journey?
“Let’s just say it made me appreciate the little things in life even more, and it also made me see the very real value of friendship, love and laughter. It allowed us to be more genuine with each other, and suffice to say in our closest circle material things has become – well – immaterial. Objects are fleeting and may go out of date, but relationships are what make life rich – at least to me.”
What kept you going?
“Seeing her determination and grace through it all, and thinking ‘She will get through this!’”
You mentioned that the hospital was the hangout spot (in good humour of course!) But how has your perception of constantly being in the hospital environment changed?
“Looking back though, going to the hospital over and over was somewhat a sign of hope to me. Every time I went to the hospital, she was one step closer to finishing her treatment. It was hard to see her becoming weaker and weaker with every passing cycle, but I believed there was a light at the end of the tunnel. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t change anything. I’d go on a thousand more hospital trips with her if I could, if it means seeing her get better.”
What do you say to yourself and her, to feel better?
“It’s good that we know, and that we can do something about it. Let’s take it one day at a time and we will get through this together.”
Advice for friends going through the same thing with their own loved ones?
“Be there for them. We can’t be in their shoes; it’s their bodies and their journey, but they don’t have to feel alone through it all. It’s as simple as a text or a call, or getting the foods they like when they’re feeling their weakest. Practically speaking, keep them company when they’re feeling low, and help them make sense of all the jargons and treatment options available out there because it can be too much to take in sometimes. Ultimately, spend time with them. That’s what life is about anyway – to be spent with the people we love.”
Read part 2 of our cancer awareness series, where we interview a husband whose wife is currently undergoing chemotherapy:
Someone I Love Has Breast Cancer (Part 2)
Photos: Shaffiq Farhan
Art Direction & Styling: Syahlia Albina Sari
Location: The Good Co.